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Futures: Sam Darnold

Futures: Sam Darnold
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Guest column by Seth Galina

"He just looks like what an 'SC quarterback should look like." That's what Chris Fowler said upon introducing Sam Darnold to the world before the 2017 Rose Bowl against Penn State.

In one aspect, he's not wrong. Since 1975, all but two starting quarterbacks for Southern California have looked like Sam Darnold. Rodney Peete started four seasons at USC in the mid-1980s before playing for a decade and a half in the NFL, and Reggie Perry started 10 games as a sophomore in 1991 before -- of course -- being moved to wide receiver in the CFL. Besides those two guys, all of USC's other quarterbacks have been white.

Where Fowler got it wrong was that Darnold actually doesn't look like a quarterback at all. A high school linebacker and receiver who only played significant time at quarterback as a senior, Darnold looks exactly like what you would expect from a linebacker disguised as a quarterback. He is unrefined, to say the absolute least.

As a quarterback coach, I spend my days trying to craft passers to look like the ideal version that I have in my head. When I watch film on these quarterback prospects and they don't look like Peyton Manning, it's easy to dismiss them. Scouting Josh Rosen is particularly simple because he looks like the ideal quarterback. The feet, the arm, and the pocket movement are stunning, visually. When I started watching Darnold, after not watching a ton of USC on TV the past couple years, I was shocked to see a quarterback who looked like the only reps he got in practice were as a Wildcat quarterback. I dismissed him. He doesn't fit my definition of what a quarterback should look like. How can an NFL team take a quarterback in the top five if he doesn't look like a quarterback?


If I had written this piece a week ago, I would have said Darnold was probably a second-round quarterback because of his lack of technical refinement and his low production output from 2017. I was this close to writing that piece. In fact, that's how I pitched it.

And yet, here I am, after grinding the film for another 27,374 hours, about to pound on the table for Darnold to be rightfully drafted high in the first round.


One of Darnold's biggest weaknesses is potentially his biggest strength. Any quarterback coach would be salivating looking at how they could mold Darnold to their own imagination if they get their hands on him. The problem is that fixing mechanics is always easier said than done.

Here are the issues:

Aiming Correctly


Darnold also often hops like a bunny in the pocket, which causes his feet to become misaligned.

Here, he finishes his dropback with his back foot aligned to throw the seam route to his No. 2 receiver, but his hop takes him out of whack and then he misses the throw.

In this next clip, his hop brings him toward the edge rusher, and then he can't get the throw off and gets sacked.

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A lot has been made about Darnold's arm mechanics. I think some of it is overblown. People will talk about his loopy delivery, which affects the time it takes from when his brain decides to throw to when he actually releases the ball. It's fixable and it doesn't affect accuracy much. He has a lean to his left (as a right-handed quarterback) that can affect his elbow as it comes through to throw. Overall, however, he gets his elbow in a good position most of the time.

In my opinion, the most important part of the throw is where the elbow comes through as he's throwing. This reduces stress on the shoulder (scapula), which is incredibly important. Darnold is fine in that regard.

All of these issues can be fixed. We only have to look at Patrick Mahomes last year to see a quarterback taking the time after his senior season to change his mechanics. Mahomes, like Darnold, also at times looked like a Wildcat quarterback. His throwing mechanics were arguably worse than Darnold's but Mahomes went from ashy to classy real quick:

For me there's a noticeable difference in his elbow. The picture with the Chiefs was taken right after they drafted him.


Another concern for Darnold is how he can sometimes pass up open reads and throw into coverage. He has gotten away with this for the most part because he has great scrambling ability and can throw on the run very well. Ideally, you don't want to put yourself in a position to have to improvise when you can just throw to an open receiver during your read progression, move the sticks, and get on with your life.

My favorite example of this is from the Washington State game. It's fourth down with the game on the line. Here's the clip from the broadcast angle.


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You look at that and you say "Wow, no one is open and he's still able to improvise and make a play."

Here's the same play from the wide angle.

Darnold is staring at the receiver breaking open for a first down and never pulls the trigger.

Let's look at a smash concept against Notre Dame to see when the same thought process results in an interception instead of a huge first down.


Like I wrote, Darnold's lack of refinement could become a strength if he's able to fix the issues I noted. When his body is properly in sync with the routes he's throwing, he is maybe the most accurate quarterback I've seen. It's that good.

USC's offense used a lot of run-pass options, so we have a lot of examples of Darnold throwing passes within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, including quick screens to wide receivers, push screens to running backs, hitches, slants, and speed-outs. It is wild watching Darnold throw these routes.

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It's hard to find clips of him not hitting his receivers in stride.

His rollout game is very accurate as well. From his own end zone he hits a comeback route on the sideline. It's shocking how accurate he is.

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Again, he's very good out of the pocket. On this play, Utah only rushes two guys and spies him with a third. There's a lot of guys in coverage, so Darnold moves around in the pocket and then throws a laser beam for a touchdown.

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I cannot understate his accuracy enough. For a kid with weird mechanics and everything I wrote about, he understands accuracy from a mental standpoint. Accuracy is a math problem. You have to calculate the speed of your target, and the velocity of your ball, and your launch point, and launch angle, and a million other things. Darnold seems to have an innate understanding of how that works.

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You see all the faults in Darnold's game but the incredible accuracy just soothes you over. You can get away with a lot of issues if you can put the ball where you want.

This is why I believe there is an elite quarterback that is hiding somewhere within Darnold. With a guy like Josh Rosen, the elite quarterback is already in full blossom and it's why in my opinion he's probably the best available quarterback. Darnold will need more work, but he can be absolutely special.

Sam Darnold freed my soul that was trapped inside $100 quarterback instructional DVDs. He has that type of power. What he can do for you and your favorite team is limitless.

Seth Galina is a quarterback coach in the football hotbed of Montreal, Quebec. He writes for And The Valley Shook, Maize N Brew, and RollBamaRoll. His twitter handle is @sethgalina, where you can find him reposting lyrics to '90s pop songs.


13 comments, Last at 09 Apr 2018, 11:51am

1 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

"Accuracy is a math problem. You have to calculate the speed of your target, and the velocity of your ball, and your launch point, and launch angle, and a million other things."

It's called hand-eye coordination. You can fix throwing and footwork mechanics, but H-E coordination is a non-teachable talent of degrees from 'you have it in spades' to 'no got'. Darnold seems to have a high degree of it. Josh Allen, maybe not.

3 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

Everyone who has played baseball has learned hand-eye coordination from a throwing and catching standpoint. Like anything else, various skill levels underlie it, but it's absolutely learned behavior.

12 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

I assume he meant major-league-level defensive talent, but in any case, Russell Wilson played 2B in the minors so it's unlikely that he was headed for a career as a shortstop.

2 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

"Besides those two guys, all of USC's other quarterbacks have been white."

Sanchez was 3rd-generation Mexican and identified as Hispanic.

8 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

Curious what you would think of Mayfield. I feel Darnold's ball placement isn't all that great, but I didn't notice the mechanical and throwing flaws you pointed out. He's accurate, but sometimes he's just off a little bit. I felt Mayfield's ball placement was the best in this class perhaps better than Rosen's ; the thing is, there are weird plays with Rosen where the ball goes somewhere way off from where the receiver is, but perhaps the receiver's running the wrong route. But Mayfield has the worst mechanics in this class; he's constantly throwing from terrible platforms, with his feet out of place, and the ball still goes where it's supposed to. The thing Mayfield does is throw a beat late, which may be enough to prefer Rosen and Darnold to him.

Then there's Josh Allen.

9 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

I'd be worried putting a rookie QB with mechanics issues behind an offensive line that no longer has Joe Thomas protecting his blind side. Mechanics go quickly when the QB doesn't have decent protection. I realize the rest of the Browns OL is better than average, but that won't matter without a good LT. It's probably still better than going to either NY team though.

10 Re: Futures: Sam Darnold

I would bet that the reason Cleveland traded for Tyrod Taylor was as a reasonably competent bridge QB. They can throw Taylor out as the opening day starter and let whoever they draft come along at his own pace. Hell, they can start Taylor all year if they feel like the rookie isn't ready. Once you've gone 1-31, you might as well lean into the tank for one more year if you think it'll be best for 2019.